The Destruction of 'L'Orient' at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798

(Updated, April 2021) On 19 May 1798, Napoleon sailed from Toulon on his hazardous adventure to Egypt, capturing Malta on the way. On 1 August, Nelson sighted Alexandria, with its harbour full of shipping and French flags, although none were ships of the line. When 'Zealous', 74 guns, sighted the French battle fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, 15 miles east of Alexandria, Nelson, as the Rear-Admiral on board 'Vanguard', 74 guns, headed there and prepared his ships for action.

This portrayal of the action is lit by the exploding French 'L'Orient', 120 guns, the French Vice-Admiral Brueys's flagship, in starboard-quarter view, on the left of the picture, its vivid orange glow lighting up the night sky. The explosion happened at 10.00 pm and killed the Admiral and most of the ship's company. Both sides were so shocked by the disaster, that for some minutes, firing ceased. Indeed the painting shows that the sails and masts flying in the air after the explosion caused considerable danger to the surrounding ships.

Filling the centre of the picture is the 'Swiftsure', 74 guns (Captain Benjamin Hallowell), in port-bow view, her sails billowing out with the force of the explosion, and surging on the wave it caused. In the left foreground, under the stern of the 'L'Orient', is a boat with sailors rescuing others from the water. In the immediate left foreground, are spars with sailors clinging to them and in the centre foreground a boat with sailors being hauled aboard. In the right background, astern of the 'Swiftsure' and mostly obscured by smoke, is the bow of the French 'Franklin', 80 guns, still firing and being engaged in the extreme right background, port-quarter view, by what is probably the 50-gun 'Leander'. (The 'Franklin' eventually struck to 'Leander' and the 'Defence'. In the right foreground, is a mast and top with two sailors clinging to it. Beside, in the extreme foreground to the right, is the bow view, with figurehead, starboard side only, of a Frenchman, probably meant to be the 'Tonnant', 80 guns, although it has been suggested that she could be the dismasted British 'Bellerophon', 74 guns.

The painting was one of four modern historical subjects commissioned for the Naval Gallery of Greenwich Hospital, on a competitive basis and at a fee of £500 by the British Institution. It was exhibited at the British Institution and presented to the Gallery in 1827.

Object Details

ID: BHC0509
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Nelson, Navy, Nation Gallery
Creator: Arnald, George
Events: French Revolutionary Wars: Battle of the Nile, 1798
Date made: 1825-1827; 1825-27
Exhibition: Nelson, Navy, Nation
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection
Measurements: Overall: 103 kg; Painting: 1855 mm x 2690 mm;Frame: 2300 mm x 3106 mm x 150 mm

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